People with high cholesterol are often told to stick to a low-fat diet. To most, this seems logical. Dietary fat has been stigmatized for decades. Naturally, people started to cut back on fat. In the 1960’s Americans got 45% of their calories from fat. Today we get 33%, a 12% difference! But has this restriction yielded good results? Rates for heart disease have not dropped while obesity and type II diabetes have sky-rocketed. Is it possible that low-fat diets are hindering health?

Fearing Fat Has Scary Results

Low-fat diets began emerging in the 1980’s and the fat-free craze peaked in the 1990’s. Everything from low-fat ice cream and fat-free cookies filled shelves.  Since fat has 2x as many calories as other sources this change should have significantly lowered our calorie intake. So why is there an obesity epidemic? Fat cannot simply be removed. It has to be replaced with something for food to be palatable.

Food manufacturers turned to refined carbs like sugar and white flour to replace fat. This substitution diminishes fat content, but not necessarily calories, since refined carbs are also calorie dense. Often times, low-fat foods have the same number of calories as their full-fat counterpart. To make things worse, refined carbs and sugars cause blood sugar to spike and crash. This crash triggers appetite, making people hungry again, faster. Suddenly, that one serving of fat-free cookies turns into two or three to satisfy cravings. Many experts believe that the fat-free craze directly correlates to the drastic rise in obesity and diabetes. The video “Blood Sugar and Weight Management” explains more.

Fat Has Value

Fat is valuable and it satisfies for a reason. Its creamy texture, the way it carries flavors, and its contribution to satiety- that feeling of fullness after eating – all make fat appealing. Plus, it has many health benefits.

Many functions in the body require fat. It allows for proper hormone function, boosts immunity, fortifies the nervous system, keeps cellular walls strong, plus it aids in the absorption and storage of fat soluble Vitamins A, D, E, and K. Some fats even help improve cholesterol levels!

Fats For Fighting Cholesterol

When trying to lower cholesterol, it is important to give the body beneficial fats – especially because some fats, like monounsaturated fats, actually improve cholesterol numbers. Here is an outline of fat types to add and avoid while addressing cholesterol.

Monounsaturated Fat

Monounsaturated fat is typically regarded as a heart healthy fat. Research suggests they it raises HDL (good) cholesterol and may even lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, thereby improving the overall ratio. Aim to increase monounsaturated fat in your diet!

Foods that contain a lot of monounsaturated fats include:
Nuts such as almonds, cashews, pecans, peanuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts.
Oils such as extra virgin olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil.
Other foods such as olives, natural peanut butter, sesame seeds, tahini paste.

Polyunsaturated Fats

Studies have shown polyunsaturated fats may improve blood cholesterol levels and lower risk of heart disease. The 2 types of polyunsaturated fats are Omega-3 and Omega-6. Both can be beneficial for health and the ideal ratio is believed to be between 1:1 to 1:4, Omega-3:Omega-6. However, the typical western diet ratio is 1:15-1:20. Far from ideal! Balance in the diet is important, so focusing on getting more Omega-3’s can be a real boost for health.

Omega-3 fatty acids are especially heart-healthy. Find them in these foods:
Cold-water fish such as mackerel, albacore tuna, and salmon.
Additional seafood such as sardines, lake trout and herring.
Plant sources such as walnuts, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, and chia seeds.

Fats to Avoid

Saturated Fats

Saturated fat currently permeates the western diet. Most people get an excessive amount from meats, cheeses, and butter. In fact, cheese consumption has more than quadrupled in the US since the 1950’s. Since saturated fat is associated with high cholesterol, it is best to cut back and be mindful of its sources in the diet.

Look out for sneaky sources like pie crust, flavored popcorn topping, and candy bars.

Trans Fat

The worst fat! Trans fats, produced by hydrogenating oil, increase LDL (bad) cholesterol while lowering HDL (good) cholesterol. Not a good combination! Even limited amounts of trans fats greatly increase risk of heart disease – especially for those who are already at risk. Trans fat intake should be limited as much as possible.

Trans fats are commonly found in:
Baking ingredients such as vegetable shortenings, hard stick margarines, baking mixes and icings.
Convenience foods such as store-bought baked goods, crackers, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, doughnuts, and pastries.

Avoid trans fats by reading food labels. If partially hydrogenated oil is listed, it contains trans fats.

A Word of Caution

Knowing what kinds of fats are beneficial for addressing cholesterol is not a free pass to eat as much fat as we like. Fat is still calorie dense. Just like any other aspect of the diet, moderation and quality are key.

Focus on Good Fats

Focusing on good fat – rather than no fat – will get the body a lot closer to healthy goals. This is especially true when it comes to cholesterol. Make some simple switches and remember to think about the quality of the fat source. For more information on the low-fat myth, click here to read this article from Harvard School of Public Health.

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